Drama relates the stories of people displaced and the humanity of those who have welcomed them

After four years in development involving scores of interviews with people seeking asylum and the people who help resettle them, I Was a Stranger Too will make its world premiere on January 26-29. Written by Cynthia L. Cooper and directed by Carolyn Levy of Ramsey Hill, the play will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Wellstone Center at Neighborhood House, 179 E. Robie St.

I was a stranger too
Actors Kirby Bennett and Nicole Joy Frethem rehearse a scene from I Was a Stranger Too under the direction of Carolyn Levy (right). Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The drama follows a woman named Rory as she attempts to navigate the asylum system and in the process encounters a rich mosaic of people who are fleeing persecution and others determined to welcome them,” said Cooper.

Rory’s mother escaped Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport. “You know about them?” she asks at one point in the play. “Children shipped out of Germany to England to save them, even though their parents were denied entry.” With Rory’s memories of her mother’s rescue at the forefront, the story unfolds in monologues by the characters she meets.

“The play shows the power and capacity of the human spirit and the hope that can emerge from a single act of caring,” said Levy. “What we’re trying to say is that, yes, asylum seekers face terrible situations, but there are people working hard to change this on the legislative and global levels. And there are people on the ground saying, ‘How can I do my share?’ People who do even small things can make a big difference.”

Shared interest in women’s issues

It was a shared interest in women’s issues that first brought Levy and Cooper together. Cooper had received a Jerome Fellowship at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and Levy was assigned to direct her first play. “It was a play about violence against women, and there weren’t that many women directors then,” Cooper said.

Levy, a former professor of theater at Hamline University, ran a company called the Women’s Theatre Project. She and Cooper continued to collaborate even after Cooper moved to New York and became an award-winning playwright with dramas produced off-Broadway and across the United States.

Genesis of the play

Work on I Was A Stranger Too began four years ago. Levy had been struck by the number of people seeking asylum. “We’re in one of the greatest periods (of human displacement) since World War II,” she said. “People are having to flee their homeland because they’re going to be killed or put in prison. They’re having to go to a place that is unknown with minimal belongings and minimal access to their networks.”


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Levy discussed her idea for the play with Cooper. “Cindy came out to Minnesota, and we did a lot of interviews with asylum seekers and the people who help them—lawyers, translators, all sorts of folks. Then Cindy went back to New York and continued doing interviews with people all over the country.”

Then came COVID

A script was developed out of those interviews, and Levy and Cooper were invited to present their production to Theatre Unbound. That was in March 2020, when the pandemic hit and the theater world ground to a halt. “But we were both very committed to continuing the project,” Levy said.

Cooper revised the script, and several virtual performances followed. “It got some nice pats on the back,” she said. I Was a Stranger Too was named a finalist for the Jewish Plays Project’s Trish Vradenberg Prize and a semifinalist at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It also received a grant from the Minnesota Jewish Arts Council and the Alliance of Jewish Theatres.

Legacy of aid to immigrants

According to Levy and Cooper, there could not be a more meaningful venue for the premiere of I Was A Stranger Too. Neighborhood House was founded in 1897 by the Sisterhood of Mount Zion Temple to assist Jewish immigrants from Europe. Since then, “it has evolved into a place that works with immigrants from all over the world,” Levy said.

Neighborhood House “has a beautiful new auditorium,” Levy added, “and they’ve donated the space to us.” As a result, Levy and Cooper are heading into the play’s opening financially sound,  which is no small thing with a cast of nine, they noted. The actors are Bethmari Márquez Barreto, Kirby Bennett, Nicole Frethem, Mahmoud Hakima, Megan Kim, Jasmine Porter, Shona Ramchandani, Abigail Ramsay and Phasoua Vang.

A nation that has welcomed and refused immigrants

Bennett has found her role in the play especially meaningful, given the current state of refugees and immigrants in the United States and the world. “The play makes it personal,” she said, “as it is drawn from the stories of real asylum seekers. Behind the face of every refugee there’s a profound and personal story of loss, of family and of hope for the future. These stories connect us with our history as a nation that has both welcomed and refused asylum seekers.”

The play reminded Frethem of the link almost all Americans have to people who came to the U.S. as immigrants, if not asylum seekers. “There are echos of the past in I Was A Stranger Too that speak loudly,” she said.

Levy and Cooper will host a panel discussion after each performance of the play. On the panels, “we have asylum seekers, a lawyer, a Hmong woman who came over many years ago and now works in the Hmong community,” Cooper said. “We have people who are suffering asylum issues and people who are trying to help.”

Tickets for I Was A Stranger Too are pay-what-you-wish, with $10 suggested. For reservations, visit strangertoo.weebly.com.

— Anne Murphy


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